Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Eulogy for Analog TV (or, Me Preaching to an Empty Church)

It's funny. Analog TV has been dead and gone to a lot of us for some time now. Yet, I have to admit that I feel a bit wistful when I realize that, within the next 48 hours or so, it will cease to exist. It is perfectly possible that you do not even know what analog TV is or why it's going away. It suffices to say that it was what mom and dad watched as kids – it was all they could watch. For decades, in fact, all a television could do was tune into analog, over-the-air broadcasts. Analog TV was what made TV as ubiquitous as it is today, even if it is about to become a mere memory.

As a predictably nerdy kid, I occasionally enjoyed experimenting with TV sets. I would grab the old 13 inch TV from the kitchen, and a dusty set of rabbit ears from the basement, then proceed to tilt them in every conceivable configuration. I was looking for something – signs of life – in the thick haze of the static that pervaded most channels. I knew where I could go for my local, New York City stations – those came in pretty clearly – but I was more interested in the stations I was not supposed to see. I would go where I knew I would not easily find anything, in hopes of getting a glimpse of some bizarre, alien station from places like Connecticut or upstate New York. There was something thrilling about staring into the frantic black and white dots, trying to discern a face, a car or perhaps even a logo that would inform me of the missive's origin.

Little did I know that I was partaking in a well-established hobby, called "DXing." Serious DXers use slightly better equipment and take into account atmospheric conditions that allow them to attain surprising results. (One of the oldest examples of television DXing supposedly came in the 1930's when a group of Long Island broadcast engineers mistakenly got ahold of a British TV signal.) YouTube is full of more contemporary examples, like this one, where a DXer in Springfield, Massachusetts found an Oklahoman signal.

The switch to digital will hardly be the end of TV DXing but it will, in my opinion, take some of the romanticism out of it. Digital TVs do not have static; you simply get the signal or you do not. Cryptic figures amid static will be replaced with a plain, black screen and a blunt "No Signal" notification. Our children, if they ever come into contact with an image of TV static, will have absolutely no idea what it is.

For my entire childhood, my family relied on our house's rooftop antenna for television. It worked well, even if I became more and more bent on getting cable as I grew up. Even when I convinced my dad to pay up for satellite, we still used the antenna for local channels. We only gave up on it when the September 11th attacks obliterated the area's primary broadcasting tower atop the Twin Towers, permanently degrading broadcast reception in the region.

In fact, September 11th must be one of my memories that has the strongest bond to analog TV. For thousands, possibly millions, of New Yorkers, local news reported the first stages of the attack, then fell into horrifying silence as the towers collapsed, bringing all of the major TV stations' signals down with them. For those without cable, it prompted a frantic scramble for smaller stations that were not originating from downtown Manhattan. By the evening, the major stations were leasing time on these smaller stations, in order to get their news reports out to cable-less New Yorkers.

As a fourteen year-old, mere days into my high school career, I once again pulled out my rabbit ears and found myself reaching into the expanding void of static. This time, I was searching for something far more immediate. Vague images of frantic news reporters attempting to describe surreal landscapes of destruction and panic played across my screen. The fascination that I had once enjoyed as a child now gained a marked sense of urgency. Yet, while I had the option of turning to CNN and our recently installed satellite system, I did not prefer it. I did not want the glossed digest of the news that cable provided; I wanted to experience it in all of its grittiness, as I struggled to find a signal and our local reporters struggled through the most harrowing moments of their careers.

It has been eight years since then, and probably just as long since I last experimented with an antenna. Ironically, however, a step up in technology has brought my back to my rabbit ears. Having recently bought an HDTV and all but renounced pay TV (a rant for another day), I now search the skies for digital signals. Amateur DXing hardly remains a hobby for me, but I recently discovered that I can still see those old analog signals. I have left a number of them programmed into my TV, too. In these final hours of life for the connections that were once so vital to Americans, I feel that someone should be seeing them off.

Another set of static-laden videos fill YouTube: Footage of stations' final, analog sign-offs. I find these moments wrenching. I know that it is only TV and I know that the digital signal is one press of the remote away, but as those fuzzy images lurch into thick, unquestionably dead static, I cannot help but feel a sense of loss. Nevertheless, out of a sense of duty, I will be watching on Friday – I will be watching as the faces and voices disappear into the static one, final time.

No comments: